The Barefoot Homeless Man, the Cop, the Tourist, and Me

On November 20, I was walking around midtown Manhattan making street photographs. After walking all day, my feet were pretty tired, and I was kind of operating on auto pilot– not quite on my A game as far as getting shots. The light had faded anyway, and I was basically just killing time waiting for Sacha to get out of work so we could go to dinner. Crossing the street, I noticed a tall, thin guy who’s feet looked as if they were suffering much worse than mine. He was walking the cold pavement with no shoes. Instinctively, I snapped a photo “from the hip” without pausing to adjust my exposure, focus, or lift the camera to my eye to compose. A few minutes later, I realized that I could see the same man across the street, still walking barefoot, panhandling, and carrying a virginal white pair of leather Nike trainers in one hand. The shoes piqued my curiosity enough for me to cross back over the street to take a closer look. As I walked closer, I snapped another (equally marginal) photograph, but instead of steadying myself to take a more considered shot, I put my camera down, looked again, and decided to ask the guy if he was ok. “yeah, I’m fine,” he replied politely. I didn’t want to get into his business, but I suggested that he might want to put on the shoes as it was a cold evening. He just smiled benevolently at me and nodded. Right. “None of my business,” I thought to myself, and walked on.

The pictures I took of him are none too sharp, and will win no awards for innovative photographic technique, composition, compassion, newsworthiness, or any other qualities, human or photographic. I would never have considered posting these images if not for the fact that the man in question, recently identified in the press as Jeffrey Hillman, shortly thereafter became known as the world’s most famous barefoot homeless man, due to the magic of social media viral contagion and the spontaneous act of kindness performed by NYPD officer Larry DePrimo caught on Arizona tourist Jennifer Foster’s cell phone camera. After that happened I definitely held off on posting the images, if only because I didn’t want to be seen as less compassionate than a NYPD cop. And this made me think.

No matter how many years I do this, and how many thousands of images I make, I’ve often been conflicted with making pictures on the streets. Should I ask first, relegating myself to stiffly posed images that really don’t capture the essence of the situation that attracted me in the first place? Only photograph people like me? (Maybe the bald middle-aged downwardly mobile demographic is a little recognized niche market just waiting to be tapped!) Avoid photographing homeless or poor people for fear of being labeled exploitive? Avoid photographing the rich out of fear of being critical? Avoid photographing women for fear of being seen as creepy? Avoid photographing children out of fear of being mistaken for a pedophile? Maybe just sell all of my cameras, donate the proceeds to charity, tie on an apron and start cooking in homeless shelters? What’s a street photographer to do? For now on, the answer for me is to shoot first, and ask questions later, at least if I think I can get away with it.

Who is to say what is going on in the mind of another person? My fears may be a result of reading too much postmodern theory, and have nothing to do with the experience of someone else who may or may not ever notice, object, or care that I’m taking a picture. Even if I cannot come up with the compassion, the time, or the courage to directly intervene in the life of a passing stranger, maybe someone else seeing an image might be so inspired, or just smile at the recognition of a human moment to which they could relate. Do investment bankers worry about this kind of shit? Regardless, the consequence of NOT taking a picture is that the world will go on indifferently turning. The lucky tourist who took the suddenly viral image of the officer helping Mr. Hillman certainly did not let any interpretation of critical theory inhibit her shutter finger, and the resulting image managed to make millions of people feel a little bit better about humanity for a day or so. Until it was disclosed that Jeffrey is still homeless, and still wandering the streets of Manhattan sans shoes. An isolated act of kindness, or a photograph, can only do so much.

As it turns out, my initial instinct about Jeffrey that caused me to ask after his well-being, was right. He wasn’t going barefoot due to a lack of access to footwear, but because some inner demon only known to himself drove his actions. I have a feeling that it would have made little difference to him had I taken a moment to get a better shot. I’d like to think that his recent interest to photographers, and thus the general public, could make a positive difference in his life, but that’s a choice that Jeffery is going to have to make on his own. As for me, I’ll probably hang onto my cameras, but I am still thinking about putting on that apron at some point. If my photographs can’t change the world, maybe my secret soup recipes will help a bit.

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Going Large (Format) in the Big Apple

As I have mentioned in an earlier post, I spent the week before last in New York City, accompanying my lovely girlfriend Sacha on a business trip. I reveled in the idea of being a “trailing spouse”, which would give me a much-needed break from my routine; a chance to spend my nights in plush luxury and my days rambling about the city playing “flaneur” and taking the holiday atmosphere, art exhibitions, and street life, with only a trace of guilt as she worked her fingers to the bone, setting up her company’s new flagship 57th street store. Just as I was about to pull my aged Subaru from its leafy curbside resting place for the short ride to the Syracuse Amtrak station, my phone buzzed in my pocket, with Sacha wishing me a safe journey. “Are you going to bring the 8×10, she asked?” innocently enough. “Of course not,” I replied. “I don’t want to carry all that gear for a weekend trip. I’ll see you in about six hours, honey!”

Immediately upon pocketing my phone, I dashed back into the house to grab my recently acquired Burke & James 8×10 view camera, a gargantuan, wood and rusting metal relic from the days when getting the shot right meant capturing it on really big film. My plan had been to travel light, only bringing my compact Sony NEX 7 EVIL digital snapper to chronicle my wanderings. The Burke & James was, of course, set up on a tripod, film holders in another room, unloaded, changing back stashed someplace else, lens untested, and partially disassembled for cleaning on my workbench. I had no idea where I’d left my loupe and cable release, nor had I yet worked out which bag might accommodate the weighty burden of my new supersized system. Somehow in an adrenaline infused blur, I rushed around the apartment, assemble the necessary items, ripped out the dividers in a beat down Lowe Pro AW backpack, folded the camera, and stuffed everything inside. I hefted the bulging bag in one hand and balanced a massive old Bogen studio tripod in the other. A crucial component of my spinal column creaked in warning. Somewhere in Jamesville, a chiropractor cracked his knuckles in anticipation. This was not exactly a dream rig for inconspicuous street shooting, but now there was no time for rational thought to intervene. Knocking some paint off the wall with the tripod on the way out, I hurried back down the narrow apartment stairwell, heaved my burden into the back of the car, and headed for the train station.

The ride to New York was uneventful, and even though every seat on the train was full, I earned barely a dirty look from my fellow passengers for consuming nearly the entire baggage rack with my last minute pile of equipment. Everyone was looking forward to some turkey, giant helium cartoon balloons, and early holiday sales. Disembarking in Penn Station was another matter entirely. I managed to hold up everyone in the car as I struggled with my bags, then, slowly limping from the platform, took up the space of three with my wheeled suitcase, camera bag, laptop bag, tripod, and backpack. The straps slung across my chest cut into my neck, and the backpack straps nearly wrenched my arms from their sockets. The accumulated weight of the baggage compressed my lungs, preventing me from taking a full breath, and slowed my progress to a sorry limp as I blocked escalators and trailed a throng of frustrated travelers in my wake. I realized how old people with walkers must feel with impatient youngsters pushing past them as they struggle through their day’s errands. By the time I emerged into the fading afternoon light of 32nd street, I was already soaked with sweat under my heavy wool overcoat. It was 4:45 PM, the taxi line was at least a block long, and my hotel was on 55th. With the greasy microwaved salami panini I’d unwisely purchased in the dining car sitting like a rock in my stomach, I continued my shuffle up 5th avenue, heedless of the thick Friday rush hour pedestrian crush trying to navigate around me, and irrationally hoping that some enterprising taxi driver would take pity and offer a ride. Of course I already knew that taxi shift change time in Manhattan knows no pity. 15 blocks later, I did manage to flag down a miraculous cab to carry me the remaining few blocks, but by then my numb hands had already sent the memo that I’d incurred the irreversible wrath of my median and ulnar nerves. Naturally the hotel clerk didn’t have the slightest inkling about my reservation in Sacha’s room when I showed up at his desk, or maybe the unshaven, wild eyed guy dripping sweat onto his counter bore no resemblance to anyone he would be inclined to grant access to a lady client’s boudoir, at least without a healthy bribe. A couple of texts and a phone call to the lady in question setting his mind somewhat at ease, I finally found myself and my baggage in the refuge of Sacha’s beautifully made up room. I dumped my gear in a pile, where it sat untouched the next two days, and collapsed onto the plush bed in exhaustion.

By the time I had gathered the energy to venture onto the streets with the 8×10, the trip had been extended through Thanksgiving. I figured out that while Sacha’s light blue rolling airline carry-on bag did not quite project the machismo aura of Serious Fine Art Photographer I had subconsciously hoped to emanate, at least it was a perfect size to accommodate my camera’s bulk, and wouldn’t force me to carry the weight on my only partially recovered back. Knowing that I’d not be able to use such a bulky camera to capture spontaneous moments the way I could with my small digicam, I hoped instead to focus on individuals sitting quietly, in contrast to the chaos around them on the streets.

The first potential subject to attract my attention was a street vendor with a striking, sunblasted face, high cheekbones, and long black hair. He stood immobile on the curb with his back to the snarling rush hour traffic under the last rays of the sun that would find a route through Broadway’s concrete abyss that day, behind a folding table bearing a neatly arranged display of comic book hero pictures printed onto pieces of stamped metal. A steady stream of pedestrians arced around the protrusion of his display, parting ways between the cross walk and a paint crusted fire hydrant up the block that formed the natural shelter where he had located his stand. All around us rose the glass towers and flashing lights of Times Square, making our human ambitions seem puny. In spite of the visual grandeur of the scene before me, I couldn’t help but think of its ironic contrast with the images of street vendors I’d made in Bombay a few years previously. Tsering Norbu, however, remained outwardly impassive to both the scene’s poetic resonance and its potential significance to my photographic oeuvre. He proved much more interested in selling me a faux antique reproduction of Captain America Comic Book cover than he was in posing for a portrait. After some negotiation, we managed to work out an agreeable compromise involving a discounted price on a poster in exchange for an print of the resulting collaboration to him. Even without a solid working knowledge of English, he seemed to have absorbed more than enough of the the requisite understanding of the principles capitalism to achieve success in the Big Apple. I’m pleased to report that his picture also turned out to be the sharpest of the day, as he held stock still for the lens to burn his likeness onto the big film for my first ever 8×10″ street portrait. In fact, he stood so motionless that I instinctively knew a second exposure would not be necessary. I hope he will like the image.

The next person who got my attention was aspiring rapper Canibus, shilling his CDs amidst the tourist throngs in Times Square. Unlike Mr. Norbu, I don’t believe that Mr. Canibus has remained motionless for even a moment in his life, but there was something about his animated presence and the flash of metal from the grill behind his grin that I couldn’t resist trying to capture on film. He readily agreed to my proposal for a portrait, but when I tried to explain to him the sequence of events necessary for the production of a sharp picture with the big camera, there was something about the phrase, “Please hold still so I can focus,” that the street poet simply could not process, no matter how many times I uttered it, or how sincerely he desired his countenance memorialized onto sheet film. I wondered whether it was something about my tone may have reminded him of school days trauma, setting off a rection of unconscious rebellion. I could actually see his eyes lose their tracking on mine and dart off to every passing distraction, the moment the syllables FO-CUS emerged from my lips, but then I noticed that what most reliably distracted my subject’s attention was the proximity of passing middle-aged housefrau types, or at least their oversized purses, as I paused in my photographic efforts long enough to witness two of his failed attempts to seduce some negotiable currency from the tantalizing folds of their owners’ faux designer bags. I was therefore pleasantly surprised upon developing my film the other night to discover that the Photographic Gods had smiled upon me that day and rewarded my patience with a passably sharp image of my Times Square encounter with the charming hop hop artist.

Leaving Mr. Canubus to the pursuit of investors for his next recording venture, I shouldered my camera and made my way only a short way to see a lovely young woman sitting on the blocked off section of Broadway at a small round red table, ears stuffed with white buds connected to a fluorescent pink and blue cased iphone, calmly filling out a job application form, and completely oblivious to the sublimely crass din of Times Square that served as the backdrop for her serene concentration. I heaved the camera from my shoulder and stood to watch her for a moment. Should I interrupt her focus to ask her permission to make a photo? She seemed so lost in her task that I knew she might well never notice me taking the time to focus the view camera and make an exposure, but the possibility of her looking up to see me bent under the dark cloth with a massive lens trained upon her, of course made that notion a nonstarter. Still, it took me a while to get her attention. When I finally did, I asked her name, and if I could make her picture. She removed her earbuds, smiled, said OK, told me her name was Darlene, put the buds back into her ears, and went on with her writing. I took my time focusing that shot, and didn’t bother her to say good bye when I packed up my camera and continued on my way. I bet she got the job.

By now the light had faded and the blue reflections of twilight were illuminating the street with a dim glow. Common sense told me that the chance of getting good exposures of moving subjects with the unknown characteristics of an old leaf shutter lens, and the quirkiness of untested X-Ray film in low light conditions would be slim to none. I’d already had a long day walking the streets with my digital camera before setting off on this adventure. I was hungry, tired, and my shoulder was already aching from balancing the tripod, but a down a few blocks, over the generic din of Times Square, I could hear the sounds of angry shouting. Of course I had to investigate. A couple of blocks further, I came upon the groups of protesters described in a previous blog entry. At the time, for the sake of clarity I had neglected to mention that in addition to the pictures published in that post, I had also made a few exposures with my 8×10 view camera. These pictures were a pure act of faith, as I had no reason to believe that they would come out. The process of attempting to photograph an intense political protest in the dim of twilight with a bulky 8×10 view camera seemed too fraught with stupidity and potential technical failure to even bother with, but I was there with my camera. Why not try?

At the time, the list of reasons of why not to try seemed pretty long, in fact. I knew that I’d be vulnerable with my head under a dark cloth and my ass in the air, trying to focus on the dim ground glass on a bunch of pissed off and fired up protesters. A few test flicks of my 1960’s vintage Fujinar leaf shutter revealed that 1/100th of a second was firing at something more like 1/15th the best I could guess, and I had no idea how to compensate for the unknown and most probably highly variable shutter speed as the ancient lubricants bathing the tiny gears and springs of the aged mechanism thickened and clotted in the cold night air. Even from a distance I could see the flashes of other photographers bursting on the scene, and the red and blue wash of of police lights adding urgent splashes of contrasting color. I envisioned myself trying to get a decent shot of the situation through a phalanx of irritated police officers and pushy press photographers. Somehow, I kept moving forward as if pulled by an invisible string, and all obstacles parted before the gravitas of my great gray behemoth of a camera and it’s ponderous spike footed support, protruding before me like a spear. The sheer mass of the rig balanced over my shoulder, and the dangerous looking tripod spikes emphatically announcing my arrival simply commanded respect, or at least invoked people’s sense of self preservation, as protesters, press photographers, cops, and passersby alike parted ways to allow my undeviated passage to claim my desired position to capture a dramatic view of the noisy assembly. New friends emerged from the crowd to steadfastly guard my equipment and watch my back as I theatrically flourished my dark cloth over my head and bent down to compose the inverted view of the scene. Time seemed to pause as the old lens rendered the latest echo of an old fight onto the camera’s frosted glass. I took my best guess at the exposures, and slowly moved my camera closer to the shouting ranks of the protesters, taking my time exposing my few precious sheets of film as I advanced, until finally, on my last frame, I decided to rotate the back for a vertical portrait of a young Jewish man with large poetic looking eyes, standing in his traditional garb, quietly and seriously holding a sign denouncing the State of Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians. He was the island of calm in the storm that I had forgotten I was looking for. But suddenly he looked out at me and said, “Don’t take my photograph. I’m not important. Take a picture of the sign that I’m holding. That is the message I want to send.” The calm, serious tone of his voice emerging from amidst the din of his comrades’ shouting surprised me so much that I momentarily forgot that the glass camera back was still in my hands. I bumped it lightly against the corner of the focusing rail, and it instantly shattered into dagger shaped shards that I watched spiraling in slow motion to explode into tinier fragments on impact with the asphalt at my feet.

“Never mind, I responded. “I think I’ll just take a few digital shots instead.” I looked up to see a cop grinning broadly at the demise of my monster camera, but the gentle smile of the protester was scarcely perceptible as he stared out past me at the darkening street beyond.

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Creepy Thanksgiving Parade Balloons

I know it’s a bit late for a Thanksgiving Day Parade post. I will hereby claim extenuating circumstances. On the recommendation of a new acquaintance, I walked up Columbus Avenue to photograph the Macy’s T’day parade floats being inflated the night before the big event. The crowds were massive. Police were out in force, and it was impossible to get anywhere near the balloons without first running a daunting gauntlet of crowd control, police barriers, and jostling, pushing, sneezing, germ infested masses. Fearing the worst, I quickly drained the remainder of the pint bottle of vodka stashed in my camera bag, hid the empty in the nearest unattended diaper tote, and waded into the fray. I’ve been accused of loving a crowd, but this one, well, I just wasn’t feeling it. Maybe because people kept running over my toes with oversized baby strollers that looked as if they had been constructed to paraglide from the North Face of Everest. Who knew that infant transportation systems had gotten so high tech? I realized in horror that I had stumbled upon the world’s biggest assemblage of toddlers and parents that the free world had ever seen. I’ve faced phalanxes of riot police shooting rubber bullets and teargas canisters, hordes of rioting anarchists, and navigated some of Asia’s worst slums without batting an eye, but this scene filled me with terror. While my drive to reproduce may have atrophied beyond recovery, there is still some goal achievement gene foolishly surviving in the back of my brain that drove me to push on through the dangers of crushed toes and infectious disease in search of some creative images. Upon returning to my room, however, I was pretty underwhelmed by the results of my dangerous expedition into the land of family friendly entertainment. Everyone around me was snapping millions of digital images, anyway. Why would mine be any better than those of the child rearing shutterbugs that crowded in elbow to elbow? Then today I saw this on Slate’s new Photo Blog:

The only thing that I hate worse than having my feet run over by an oversized all terrain baby stroller is getting scooped on a photo idea. So all I can offer now is this belated slide show of my own (very similar) images, and one small piece of advice: If you shot it, get it out there before some other bastard does it first!

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Protests against the Bombing of Gaza, NYC

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Mexico City Street 2005

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When Pixels Fail

Since the opportunity for an impromptu visit to New York City presented itself this weekend, I had planned on spending the day doing some street photography and checking out the fall offerings in the galleries and museums. Instead, news of the intensifying air strikes against Gaza had me too distracted and depressed to focus on anything else. Rather than head to the Met or Chelsea, as I had planned, I walked to 2nd Avenue and 42nd Street to have a look at the face of the Israeli Consulate. Somehow I wanted to know if the important people inside felt any joy at their deadly fireworks display, or any remorse at the blood being spilled in their names. But nobody was around. The consulate is closed on Saturday. The building met me with a steely, indifferent facade, opaque and inscrutable to my gaze. I wanted to throw rocks, but the sidewalk offered no ammunition, and even if I had thought to bring some with me, my arm would have lacked the strength to propel them even to the first floor of the building. Had I howled in rage, my voice would have disappeared into the wind. The bag of expensive lenses hanging from my shoulder, each one carefully chosen for its ability to reveal a different aspect of the world around me, was powerless to visualize the violence emanating from the masters of that faceless edifice. The sidewalk outside was deserted, save for a bored looking security guard trapped in a little glassed in kiosk at the front of the building. Even the Dunkin’ Donuts shop on the ground floor had an abandoned air. The United Nations Plaza a couple of blocks away exuded a similar forlorn emptiness. Nothing to see here, move along.

Feeling a bit lost, I walked slowly up 5th Avenue past throngs of shoppers in fashionable clothes browsing the sumptuous displays of luxury goods already set out for the holidays. The sidewalks were crowded with women turned out in furs, ski leggings, and tall boots, even thought the day was barely cold enough to require an overcoat. Madison Avenue was blocked off for several blocks, not in anticipation of social unrest and outrage at America’s involvement in so many unjust wars, but so that bargain hunters could enjoy the bounty of Chinese knockoff purses, Kashmiri scarves, Greek gyros, and stamped imitation Nepali costume jewelry set up on folding card tables all along the road. Trying to somehow join in the spirit of the season, I bought my girlfriend some beautiful soft cashmere wool scarves and lovely 1000 thread count sheets, but even as I searched for the right color scarf to match her winter coat, I couldn’t get the images of the charred babies I had awoken to on my Facebook feed out of my head. I tried to make some photographs of the lush spectacle of consumerism, hoping to use the images in ironic juxtaposition to the pictures of misery that had been seared into my brain, but my camera battery and the backup both died prematurely, as if to underscore the uselessness of attempting to transcribe my mental state in the form of some clever arrangement of pixels.

As I walked back to my hotel, I passed the vendors with charcoal fires on pushcarts, filling the air with the scents of barbecued meat to tempt hungry passersby. My mouth watered involuntarily as the nostalgic smoke of roasting chestnuts and beef kebabs stung my eyes, but my hunger soon turned to nausea as I remembered the scent of burning human flesh incinerated in the sacred cremation fires on the banks of the Ganges River that I experienced over ten years ago on my first trip to India. No amount of time elapsed will erase that smell from my memory. I wondered if the smoke rising from the burning homes in Gaza carries that same acrid aroma. Israel may well bomb that city back into the middle ages, as the country’s Interior Minister bragged he would do today in order to ensure his country’s security, but surely he must understand that those who survive to remember the scent of the burning flesh of their relatives and friends will dedicate their lives to ending Israel’s reign of terror by any means possible. Each child killed in today’s bombardment will push the hope of peace and security in the region farther away than ever, as today Israel chose to renew the cycle of killing once again.

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The revenge of Huitzilopochtli

I probably shouldn’t have spent the day editing a long-lost suite of photographs that I made in Mexico in 2005. I really need to attend to more urgent matters, but somehow just couldn’t get out of Mexico. The image here, which is only a “first draft” fragment, has little to do with the rest of my work from that place I visited for a couple of weeks seven years in the past, and revisited through the umbilical of a firewire cable today, but it might provide a hint to the direction I’ll next travel, as well as to the nature of the personal digital photographic archive and its evolving role in individual and collective memory. I made this “photograph” by compositing at least 20 separate smaller images, taken with a 5 megapixel ca.2003 point and shoot digital camera hand-held at night, using the old and notoriously bad infrared “night-shot” mode, and then further degraded the already questionable image quality by applying a “Sepia” filter in camera, before output to over-sharpened, noisy jpeg image files, which have been saved in digital form, and transferred over the past seven years to a series of computers, hard drives, and countries. When a lot of these low quality images are stitched together, one can enjoy a really large low quality image that looks a lot like a photograph on our dearly beloved and soon to be unobtainium, film, the impending demise of which all of us photographers of a certain age are in the process of mourning, even before the silvery corpse has breathed its last breath. In fact, the image in question is not at all a photograph in the way we reflexively understand the term. The perspective represented here is one that the lens did not see, but that the computer generated. The humans depicted in the image below were never at any one point of time physically present in the relationship depicted in the image. The shape and proportions of the cathedral have been altered by a computer algorithm and then further manipulated through a distortion filter and GUI interface that allowed me to reshape the geometry of the monument to suit a purpose that Hernando Cortez could have never visualized when he and Father Olmedo consecrated the place in the name of their own God in 1520. The final result conforms to neither the reality of that time and place as I experienced it, or any photographic record of it, or even the history that shaped its current physical appearance, but rather, is a result of the overlay of my distracted, fragmented experience of a place as interpreted by my use of a very specific technology, and then my reinterpretation of that scene many years later, shaped by any number of factors in my own experience today, and then transmitted to you, courtesy of a mad house of technological cards that we all pretty much take for granted. The cathedral that provided the physical index for the backlit lattice of phosphorescent pixels that you are now experiencing, is built on the foundations of the temple of Huitzilopochtli, the Aztec God of War, which it is said, was consecrated in 1487 with the blood of 80,000 men, sacrificed by cutting out their still beating hearts. It was built on top of loose fill on top of what was once a floating mat of vegetation over a lake, which sits perilously close to a tectonic fault line. That nearly 500 year old stone cathedral is not as solid or eternal as it looks. For now it still stands, but one day the forgotten Aztec War God may return to claim that contentious blood soaked piece of real estate. The Spaniards built the cathedral as a symbol of their victory over the Aztecs, and as a monument to their own religion and civilization. Now we are building our cathedrals in the digital clouds. The monuments to our civilization are as close to vaporware as one could imagine. It would take much less than the wrath of an angry war god to reduce our clever world of ones and zeroes to simply nought. Will our virtual world last as long as the ephemeral stone cathedrals of the conquistadors?

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The Klock Shop

November arrived with tail pipe dragging, rust setting into my hood latch, acceleration waning, rear brakes grabbing, my state inspection tags firmly expired. Time has taken its toll on my trusty vehicle as it nears its 200,000 birthday. I decided today to drop it off at the auto repair place and walk home with my camera in hand to get some oxygen into my blood after too many days of computer sitting. On foot, I noticed a small wood frame house that I must have sped by on the way to the mechanic. It crowded right up against the sidewalk and sported a collage of clocks in the window and a strange and primitive cat carving affixed next to the front door. The sign overhead read “Karl’s Klocks”. I could see a light on inside, so pushing the vaguely ominous connotations of the store’s alliterative title to the back of my mind, I pushed the glass door open and was sucked into the black hole of Karl’s Klock’s time warp. Inside were so many old clocks marking different times that the fourth dimension itself had shattered into an indeterminate quivering mass of temporal anomalies that threatened to cut off Einsteins balls with a rusty pocket knife. In the corner of what once had been the front room sat a man in an old red overstuffed easy chair, facing the door. He was wearing a maroon apron, thick, dirty glasses, old jeans, and quoting Rush Limbaugh to a plump older woman who had stepped in from the 1950’s to restart her clock, but he hadn’t had time to get to it yet. I’m not sure that she was in the right place, but she might have been at one time.

Time wasn’t exactly standing still in the shop. It was instead slowly accumulating in layers of sediment on a dirty beige shag carpet that looked as if it had given up hope of meeting a vacuum cleaner sometime in the late 1980’s. Broken clocks lay scattered in piles that threatened to engulf the outmatched shop owner. Different eras, sizes and styles of time pieces were strewn randomly, filling the space with an overwhelming visual confusion, threaded by a tenuous path that looked as if it could be blocked by an avalanche of alarm clocks at any given moment. The presumably working satellite synchronized clock in my iPhone read about 17 minutes past noon when I walked into the shop, but several hours had somehow elapsed before I managed to escape the gravity well of the shop’s time sink. All this frozen time clamored for my attention in a tangled temporal collage that would only release me on its own schedule. I tried to quiet my busy mind, and absorb whatever lessons this place had to offer. It slowly dawned on me that had walked into a metaphor for my own photographic image archive. Both my repository of images, and Karl’s trove of dusty timepieces were disorganized and ill-defined collections of frozen moments that nobody else wanted, stored away and jealously guarded as if a precious legacy. I couldn’t help notice that all Karl’s Clocks had been adorned with very large red and white price tags that bore what seemed to be extremely optimistic dollar amounts, given the general atmosphere of disarray permeating the establishment. He was obviously in no hurry to sell any of his collection of time pieces from times gone by. A comment on the cost of clocks inspired a monologue on the price of time pieces relative to the retail index on a brand new Cadillac relative to the GNP and average take home wages before diverging into a treatise on the mechanical durability of the Cadillac vs. that of the Subaru and other Japanese interlopers. I didn’t think it worth pointing out that my 13-year-old Subaru had actually been assembled in Indiana during the waning days of the Clinton Administration, and had safely transported me the equivalent of eight times around the planet, fearing that this line of thought might set him off on a conspiracy theory about government’s faking the moon landings, and that the Earth was actually flat. Prada has their strategy for retail success, J Crew has theirs, and Karl has his own ideas. Sitting in his armchair surrounded by broken timepieces and the apocalyptic drone of AM talk radio, he has had plenty of time to develop a theory for pretty much everything. Over the course of the next several hours, I was treated to an account of many of them. The American’s with Disabilities act, affirmative action, government corruption, corporate lobbyists, The Obama administration’s energy policy, Imminent Domain, gun laws, unfair small business tax policies, Gay Marriage, immigration law, and many other topics came under his withering fire. Proof of a failing economic policy was found in the fact that his clock repair business had lost more money each succeeding year, and his terrible problems with cheap Chinese replacements for the clock parts that he used to get (believe it or not) from India indicated a trade policy in crisis. Obama’s reelection infuriated him, and the “I’ll Keep My Religion, My Guns, My Liberty, and My Money. KEEP YOUR CHANGE!” bumper sticker affixed to his front door had already alerted me to the possibility that my host might have a firearm or three stashed within easy reach under his armchair, or in the jumble of clocks at his feet, and inspired me to carefully frame my disagreements with his views as gently hinted suggestions for alternative potential interpretations on the consequences of time’s passage through history’s causes and effects.

Karl and I didn’t agree on much. While the difference of our opinions on the relative human worth of Lee Atwater and (“that fat fuck”) Ted Kennedy couldn’t have been more stark, our views did converge on the common fate shared by those two old ideological adversaries. Our respect for the dangers of cell phone microwave radiation also overlapped with mutual anxiety of the technological obsolescence of our respective fields. In our consciousness of the inexorable march of time, we both stand in tragic, futile resistance in our own disparate ways. Maybe his conservative political agenda and his collection of stopped clocks are both an attempt to retard the passage of time, as is my collection of stopped fragments of space/time in the form of a personal archive of photographs. Who really needed a clock repair man any more? Or a photographer? He talked of a coming economic apocalypse where the best insurance for the protection of one’s assets would be a machine gun. Both of our professions will be considered unnecessary then, he warned darkly.

While I was lost in the labyrinth of time at the clock shop, and wondering how many images of clocks I would find with a Google search (Turns out about 289,000,000 at the moment of writing I redundantly froze a couple of hundred more exposures of the clock cemetery with my digital camera to add to the image avalanche. I made no attempt to compose the frames as discrete images, but envisioned stitching them together into huge overlapped fractured collages that didn’t come together at the edges, like the bankrupt Kodak dream of stopping time. Maybe tomorrow I’ll visit Karl’s Klocks with my 8×10″ view camera. Stopping the flow of this much time might require some heavy artillery.

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The Fearless Eye Exhibition Essay

It was great getting a chance to show my work at ArtRage Gallery in Syracuse NY this fall as part of The Other New York (TONY) Everson Museum 2012 Biennial. ArtRage is a long running community gallery space that emphasizes work that deals with social issues. I was very happy to have my work in a gallery that has dedicated itself to exhibiting art that has a social impact. I really enjoyed working with the director, Rose Viviano, who runs the show with professionalism and flair, and the other three artists in the exhibition, Ben Altman, Paul Pierce, and Bob Gates. But maybe the best outcome of the whole experience was the essay that Cazenovia College art professor Anita Welych wrote for the exhibition catalog. The part about my work is at the end:

Bob Gates

On a downtown Syracuse corner, bus patrons gather, then disperse to the corners of the city and beyond. The temporary inhabitants of this liminal space, a threshold space that is neither work nor home, are encountered out of their element. They exist in a limbo in which they are, for a brief time, caught off guard. Their quotidian identities are momentarily lifted and they are a bit more open, a bit more vulnerable. For photographer Bob Gates, this is a crucial moment to approach each and document their transitory presence.

Lawyers, drug dealers, secretaries, laborers and the homeless all congregate in this public space, which Gates calls ”one of the most diverse places” he has ever experienced.

Recognizing that the completion of the new bus transfer station may irrevocably change the egalitarian character of this gathering place, Gates has documented the richness of this casual and transient population of citizens in a series of sensitive portraits; this suite represents but a small cross-section of the approximately 1900 subjects photographed in a two-year span of time.

The decontextualization of this “in between” space perhaps results in greater openness to Gates’ requests for a portrait. For him, these portraits represent a collaborative venture in which the subject decided if and how he/she wished to be portrayed. This emphasis on the dignity of the subject allows Gates (and therefore the viewer as the stand-in for the photographer’s eye) to experience an intimacy that may otherwise prove inaccessible.

The pervasive message of this project is a clear and powerful recognition of our common humanity, an uplifting message in times of division and even despair.

Ben Altman

“The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power.”
George Orwell, 1984

After listening in disbelief as former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales defended waterboarding, photographer Ben Altman decided to “torture” himself in his basement studio, creating scenes in elegant detail to stand in for the horrors that have been largely hidden from view, whose whispers may nonetheless insinuate themselves in our zeitgeist.

Attraction and repulsion often accompany each other. As viewers, we are torn between our appreciation for the craftsmanship and beauty of the Guantánamo Basement installations and our rejection of the atrocities depicted. Gazing upon these stylized images of torture, we find ourselves complicit in the acts presented. Are we the torturers? Are we bystanders? Are we the next victims? Or, perhaps, are we asked to bear witness to that which has not been made visible to us?

Altman intentionally inserts the viewer physically in the work through interactive elements or by forcing us to view the work in specific ways. Mirrors, for example, function as multi-layered devices. They reflect the viewer, who becomes part of the work: an implicit victim, voyeur, witness, participant; they often reveal the presence of the camera and the artifice of the work. Viewer interaction results in a series of complex, visceral responses. By documenting himself in these poses, photographer Ben Altman performs all three roles: the torturer, the tortured and the witness. Using himself as subject avoids an exploitative use of such sensitive subject matter.

By creating a visual representation for that which is rendered invisible, Altman not only references specific atrocities (Abu Ghraib, Abner Louima), but also discusses broader concepts of strength vs. vulnerability, control vs. loss of control, power vs. lack of power.

Neil Chowdhury

For how many centuries have Western artists, including photographers, descended upon non-Western peoples to create art from the travails of downtrodden or culturally distinct individuals? Preconceived notions are layered so thickly over the subjects’ own sense of identity that the work becomes more a portrait of the creator – and the viewer – in a fetishization of the exotic “Other”. It seems, at times, impossible for artists and photographers to relinquish the control their position of power provides.

Photographer Neil Chowdhury is in the unique position of being Indian, British and American. Perhaps truly belonging nowhere, his very hybridity allows him to bridge cultural differences, documenting his subjects while leveling the power structure. Shooting largely at the request of the people he encountered on the street, Chowdhury lugged his heavy 4×5 camera through the crowded streets of Mumbai for a six-week period in 2008. This authenticity of connection allowed Chowdhury a sort of partnership with street vendors, laborers, the homeless, and holy men. His immersion into their world as an itinerant photographer kept intact their sense of self while allowing him unique access to people generally overlooked even by their fellow citizens.

Only recently reunited with his negatives, Chowdhury worked on an appropriate presentation for the images. The earthy, hand-worked processes of cyanotype and van dyke brown, printed on roughly textured watercolor paper, reference the humble trades documented in the nearly 300 large-format images. Moreover, the two processes are mutually destructive; according to Chowdhury, they “eat each other”. While this provides a wonderfully rich look, their corrosive quality serves as an apt metaphor for aspects of contemporary Indian life: traditional lifestyles vs. conspicuous consumption; East vs. West; paternalistic society vs. modern greed. The overwhelming profusion of imagery and textures reflect some of the hectic sensory overload that is modern urban India.

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The Photography Conference

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Kathmandu 2002

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